May 8, 2000
by Dan Bent
Kevin Rogers is in his second year as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach following eight seasons at Syracuse. During that time, Rogers served as the Orange quarterbacks coach and spent two years as offensive coordinator. While at Syracuse he oversaw the development of three-time BIG EAST offensive player of the year Donovan McNabb and helped the Orange to three consecutive BIG EAST titles from 1996-98. After a first season with the Irish in which Jarious Jackson shattered virtually all the Notere Dame season passing marks, Rogers comments on the differences between this year and last year, the talent at various positions and his expectations for the 2000 season.
Q: First of all, what are some of the difference you noticed between this spring and last spring?
A: I think for all of us involved, it was a lot better than it was going into last spring. First of all, in terms of the staff, we're all solidly on the same page. I think our working relationship is much better because we've been around each other longer and we've developed a good chemistry and a good mold for teaching. If you are confident in what you are teaching, I think it translates into how well your kids perform. Another difference is that last year, personnel wise, we were highly inexperienced. We had a bunch of guys that hadn't played. Now we have a lot of guys with experience. We had some injuries, and consequently, we had to play a lot guys who may not have gotten that chance to play. So, hopefully what was a liability last year will be a strength this year, and that's experience in games.
Q: Do you feel the players have more confidence in your system this year?
A: Absolutely. Just the way we practice and what the kids know and expect, it's 180 degrees from last spring. Hopefully that will translate into us being a more efficient offense, but there is no question that the confidence level, as far as the kids and coaches, is much better than it was at this time last year.
Q: Now that the players have a better understanding of your offensive system, is there any less importance placed upon teaching the offense versus fine-tuning it?
A: There is even more teaching involved, and now it can be more detailed teaching - the finer points of their assignments, techniques and fundamentals. The teaching is as intense as it ever was before, yet I think we will be more productive with the offense because there is a base understanding of what we are trying to accomplish.
Q: Last year the offense had some success, especially toward the end of the year, accumulating yards and points. Do you feel last season's success is any indication of how well this year's team will perform?
A: Well, you look at it as a coach and you see that we were close. But it's not horseshoes, so we do not receive any credit for being close. It is evident that we can be a pretty good offense if we can just get things cleaned up. We still plan on having a multiple offense, yet we don't want to sacrifice execution in order to be multiple. There were far too many missed assignments last year at critical times that hurt us. We also have to be able to make plays when plays are there to be made. All we had to do in a couple situations last year was make plays when they were presented and our season would have been much different. So, we plan to move on from where we were last year and be a powerful offense, and I feel that we have a really good chance to do that.
Q: With the graduation of veteran quarterback Jarious Jackson, how do you help Arnaz Battle adjust from a back-up role to the position of starting quarterback?
A: First of all, there is no substitute for experience. I believe we had about nine games decided on the last series of downs or the second to last series of downs, so obviously Arnaz didn't play as much as I would have liked. There is an experience factor. Arnaz also has to learn that he is "the man." Jarious understood and relished that role and, as a result, he was a tremendous leader. We have to develop Arnaz as a leader. By the same token, though, I think that Arnaz has a pretty good base understanding of the offense that we can build on. He can be a dynamic player, but he needs to be a confident player. I know that as he has success with the offense his confidence will increase.
Q: You commented on increasing Arnaz's confidence in his ability to run the offense. How do you instill confidence in your players?
A: I think the bottom line is that the players have to know what they are supposed to do and understand the system. Once the players understand the system, they'll play with confidence. It's knowing who to block without any trepidation, regardless of what look comes up during the course of a football game. I feel that we should be able to handle any situation that presents itself. Last year, every situation was a new one for the players. Confidence in terms of breaking the huddle, coming to the line and feeling that you know exactly what you are supposed to do regardless of the situation is what we try to instill in the players. I think that we are going to get that response this year.
Q: Could you comment briefly on each of the candidates at quarterback this year?
A: Well, I think that Arnaz has all the qualities to be a good player, and when you have good players, you tend to be a good coach. I also think that Gary Godsey has come a long, long way in terms of being a quality quarterback. He's a pretty darned good quarterback in his own right. Gary's almost six feet, seven inches and weighs about 250 pounds, but he's really improved his movement. We've obviously put a lot of stock in the young guys coming in, but they are unproven commodities. I know what we have in Gary Godsey and there are aspects of the offense that he can do very well. So, until one of the freshmen proves himself to where we feel he's a better player than Gary, Gary's going to be a quarterback. Obviously, though, he's a big-bodied guy who can play another position. With the young quarterbacks coming in, I'm going to work hard to get them the information on the offense so they can do some studying on their own. This way they have a solid base to work with and they'll hit the ground running this summer.
Q: The tailback position appears to be one of the brightest spots on offense this year. How do you view the depth at that position?
A: That situation is very positive. Any time you can stack a position with quality talent, it's very positive. The challenging aspect of the situation is that they all want to play and they all want to touch the ball. We have to understand as a team, though, that whether it's the wide receivers, the tight ends or the running backs, there's only one football. The key to our season, then, is being selfless and just focusing on winning football games and not on how many times I carried it or how many times I touched it.
Q: Could you comment more specifically on the abilities and talents that Julius Jones, Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard bring to the offense?
A: Well, it's no secret that Julius Jones, as a freshman, showed great prospects. He's terrific with the ball in his hands, but he has to expand himself in terms of being a complete football player. He's one of those guys that you can't worry about what play you call when he is in the game. You have to be able to open your playbook and call any play you want. Then, you also add a guy like Tony Fisher who had 1,100 yards in total offense last year. When things got tough last year, Tony got tougher. He showed me a lot in terms of himself and his character. He's a warrior that you need on the field. Terrance Howard is a player who probably hasn't gotten the opportunity that he needs to get. Now, Terrance needs to stay healthy. But again, when he's gotten in games and you look at the roles he has played in passing situations and running the ball, he's done a pretty darned good job. So you've got a very delicate situation where you want to get them all in the game and give them substantial playing time, but again, the main idea is to win football games. We are going to try and get each player equal reps, but obviously you go with the guy who has the hot hand. We're also going to look at Fisher at the fullback position so we can get two of those three guys on the field at the same time.
Q: Another position that appears solid in terms of talent is the offensive line. With the return of so much experience, do you see it as a particularly strong unit and how much of an impact will they have this year?
A: I tell you what: we have skilled athletes, but a skilled athlete cannot function unless you block people. I don't care how good your quarterback is or how good your tailback is, unless you have some guys up front who are doing the job, the offense will not function. I'm really excited about this group of guys. The only thing that's a little bit disappointing at this point is that we still have some residual injuries from last year that carried over into the spring. But you take a look at the guys we have coming back and you can't help but think positive things. You're talking about maybe 10 guys that each have a legitimate shot at being a starter. I think that it will also allow that group a better chance to develop chemistry. More so than with any other unit on the field, that group has to work in concert with each other. These boys are going to be a very prideful, competitive group, and if you look at our guys physically, you are going to have to be a pretty good football team to stay on the line of scrimmage with them. You know, I'm not a flattery guy, but I feel that we are going to be a pretty darned good unit up front.
Q: You commented that you will again run a multiple offensive scheme this year. How do you incorporate the tight end into the offense?
A: We're constantly looking for ways to incorporate the tight end more into the offense. I think we caught about 26 or 28 balls between Danny O'Leary and Jabari Holloway. If you take one tight end, that's a pretty good amount of catches in this offense. A big part of the offense is running the ball, so the tight end that's in the game has to be able to block as well. Then, in a third-down passing situation, you have to make a decision as to whether you want a tight end in the game or a faster wide receiver. Yet, by the same token, with the tight ends that we have, we have to find more ways to get them the ball. We have done that during the off-season. But again, we have two good players at that position that we have to keep happy and that relates back to the chemistry of the team.
Q. Is there one unit in particular you think will surprise people this year?
A: I really hope it's the offensive line. I also like to think that the quarterback is going to shock some people. I believe that we have a little more speed on the field this year, and I think you'll see that we are tougher to cover in man-to-man coverage and that the tailback can go the distance if we get someone on the safety. I know that can happen at the quarterback position. But if you are talking about a single unit, the biggest improvement will be upfront.
Q: Could you comment on the difference for you, personally, between your first year and your second year as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame?
A: I don't know if I can really put it into words, but last year I felt a lot of anticipation. I didn't know the program nearly as well as I do now. I didn't know all the strengths and weaknesses of our players. I also had no idea how much work had to be done on the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, everything at this point last year was all roses. I was the new coordinator, everything was shiny and new and I anticipated an explosive offense. Well, it's a year after a 5-7 season and it's not quite the same situation as it was last year. The atmosphere inside the program, among the football team and the coaching staff is very, very good. You are not going to see the attitude of a 5-7 football team with our kids. I didn't come to Notre Dame to be 5-7. It's extremely disappointing for all of us. But by the same token, we're not far away.